The next time someone tells you that Marx or Marxism is outdated because capitalism is not as exploitative as it was in the 19th century, just crack open your copy of Capital, turn to the chapter on the working day, and compare its vivid depiction of the brutalization of the British working class to the state of the working class in China today. Substitute electronics or auto parts factories for cotton mills, and the cities of Shenzhen, Foshan, or Zhongshan for Manchester, Birmingham, or Glasgow, and the picture doesn’t change very much. Then as now, workers are subjected to working days of 12 hours or more, tyrannical supervision, and pitiful wages. It’s not very surprising to see that at least a dozen workers at a single electronics factory in China have committed suicide in the past year. The working and living conditions confronting millions of Chinese workers are desperate, and they directly (and mostly negatively) impact the prospects for working people around the world.
But there’s only so much that workers, even those living under a harshly repressive regime, can tolerate before fighting back. In recent weeks a wave of strikes for higher wages and better working conditions has rocked a series of Chinese manufacturing centers, challenging the exploitation and resulting social inequalities that have fueled China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades.
While the Chinese government’s tight controls over the press prevents us from knowing for sure, the current unrest seems to have begun with a strike at a Honda transmission plant in the southern city of Foshan in late May. All 1,900 workers walked off the job to demand wages commensurate with those of Honda’s assembly plant workers, a demand for a 75 percent wage increase. After about two weeks on strike, the transmission workers won an increase of 24 to 32 percent.
This strike, which shut down Honda’s production lines around the country, inspired additional strikes against the company in Foshan and elsewhere. Days after the first strike was settled, workers at an exhaust system factory in Foshan walked off the job to demand higher wages, and they were joined almost immediately by workers who shut down at least two auto parts factory and two assembly plants. As the strikes spread, they seem to be taking on something of a political character as well. According to a report in the New York Times, the 1,700 workers currently on strike at the auto parts factory in Zhongshan are calling for the formation of an independent union in addition to better wages and working conditions, openly challenging the mostly useless government-controlled trade union federation. The same report says that strikes against other foreign-owned plants in at least five other cities have begun, spreading beyond the southern Guangdong province in which the strike wave began.
Why has the strike wave happened now, and why haven’t they been suppressed yet by the Communist Party? According to the excellent Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, demographic changes and government policy likely explain much of the recent wave of worker unrest. China’s one child policy has allowed families to focus all of their resources on that one child, raising expectations and alleviating poverty. The Internet, while still heavily filtered, has allowed Chinese workers to learn about the struggles of others and has aided the circulation of discontent. A labor shortage has given workers more leverage to make previously unrealistic demands; certain government policies have increased investment in rural areas and diversified Chinese industry, giving workers more employment options; and pressure to improve wages and living conditions has partially come from the government itself.
It’s probably not much of a coincidence that the Chinese government is tolerating the strike wave at a time when the global economy is shifting its long dependence on the American consumer as its primary engine. The Chinese will need to decrease reliance on exports and stimulate more domestic consumer demand to maintain steady growth; allowing workers to bargain for higher wages would help them accomplish this goal (though if there are any signs that the strike wave might go beyond purely economic demands, I would expect the Chinese government to crack down harshly). This is one of those interesting examples where class struggle waged by workers helps to serve the shorter term interests of capital, as when the struggle to shorten the working day ensured that capitalists would not drive all of their workers into early graves.
Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter. He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn. The text above is an excerpt from an article published in The Activist on 11 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.